Work unfolds


We start this posting with a follow-up story to last week's recounting of Thanksgiving in the RIM. It's an excellent example of why this country needs the Peace Corps, especially those Volunteers in the Small Enterprise Development program.

On the Monday when we did the major shopping for the Thanksgiving meal, one of our stops was at a butcher, where our host ordered ten whole chickens. On Wednesday, said host went to pick them up. The butcher did not have any record of his order. Our host, then, looked at the area where the chickens were, saw the assortment of wholes and parts that were there, and said, "All right, then. I will buy all this."

The butcher looked at him and said, "I can't sell you all of this."

"Why not?" asked our puzzled shopper.

"Because," reasoned (?) the butcher, "then I won't have anything left to sell for the rest of the day."

With the elections and Ramadan over, and my supervisor back from his trip to Tunisia, the people at the Institut Pédagogique Nationale (IPN, the agency where I am working), have now run out of official reasons for not getting any work done. That being the case, they scheduled a meeting so that we could talk about the tasks ahead of us.

On Monday, the first of December, I met with the directeur général of IPN and three others, including my direct supervisor and my counterpart. Following are the jobs that we are to accomplish:

* Correct some papers for the baccalaureate (bac) exams.

* Plan and produce two radio shows to be broadcast in English.

* Plan and produce two television shows to be broadcast in English.

* Rewrite the Level 1 English book and accompanying teachers' edition.

* Write a new Level 6 English book and accompanying teachers' edition.

* Write an article for a professional magazine published by IPN; everyone looked at me when this was mentioned, and my supervisor told me to get going on it "toute suite" (pronounced "toot sweet," and meaning "right away").

* Get a computer on which I can work at IPN. Everyone expects that this is something I will do, and my counterpart told me I needed to "put pressure on" my APCD in order to get a computer and printer.

* Plan a seminar for teachers.

* Find funding for the seminar; once again, they looked to me for this.

When we got back to our offices after the meeting, my counterpart brought me a copy of the seminar that was held last year, to show me what transpired. They haven't chosen dates for this year's event, but I was surprised to note the inclusive dates of the last one: December 29 - January 2!

Since I don't have a computer yet, and I was told to get moving right away on my article, I told my counterpart that I would go to the PC bureau to work on it. I said I would bring in a first draft the next day.

The following day, I brought him the draft and waited for a response, so I would know in what direction to take the piece from there. In the meantime, I got a phone call apprising me of some demonstrations at the Palais de Justice (courthouse), where former president Haidalla (whom the current president deposed in a 1984 coup, and who was a failed candidate for president in the recent elections) is on trial, having been arrested by the president. The PC was advising us that we stay out of the area, and that if we were already there, we should leave.

On my way out of the building, I ran into my counterpart and asked him about the timeline for making any adjustments I would need to make on the article. He told me, "It's no problem. We usually hand those in by April or May."

April or May? What is so "toute suite" about that?

When I told one of our second-year Volunteers that I had been in Nouakchott since the middle of September and had just had a meeting on December first to talk about the work that I would do, her response was, "Right on schedule!"

World AIDS Day was observed with an exhibition of AIDS posters on display at the French Cultural Center. There were also a lot of new posters around the city concerning AIDS. It's a topic that people are taking seriously here; there are many organizations working on educating people about AIDS.

A friend who reads this journal regularly asked me to explain if I had found out anything concerning the incident of which I wrote in the 11/17 entry, when I visited a family, was ultimately left to watch television by myself, and the mother of the family was puzzled and that I was leaving so soon.

Yes, I not only followed this up to find out about what was happening socially, but I am pleased that there are people who are reading the website and trying to get an understanding of these situations themselves.

I spoke to Allasane, who is the APCD for the Health and Water Sanitation program. In order for him to explain the dynamics to me, he needed to know who were the dramatis personae in the house at the time.

When I got there, the women were Fatou, her teenage daughter Hawa, baby Aïchatou, and another woman I didn't know. The men whom I know - Fatou's husband Mohamed, brother-in-law Ibrahima, and son Moussa - were not at the house. The only men on hand were ones I had never seen before, which is not so unusual, as I can go to just about any house at any given time and see an almost entirely new cast of characters - some in residence, some visiting - on every visit.

The key to understanding this situation was in the above explanation of who was there at the time. As for the men, I didn't know any of them personally. I was speaking French and they could very well have been more comfortable conversing in their native Pulaar. In any event, since we did not already know each other and there was nobody there to make the personal connection, they did not necessarily feel obligated to stay with me.

As for the women, I found that it would have been unseemly for any of them to stay in the same room with a man who was not either a member of the family or a very close friend of the family. This approach is common among all levels of society and across all the language groups.

Add to that the time of day, which was between 1:00 and 2:00 PM, and it was Ramadan, which meant that people were fasting, hot, and tired.

That, then, explains why it was that I was left on my own. As for their being surprised that I was just not interested in staying there to watch television by myself, they will probably continue to be as puzzled by that as by the fact that I am not as delighted as they are to see a huge hunk of goat on the plate for dinner.

One of the PC staff members asked me if I had received an invitation to the afternoon gathering on Thursday, to be held in the home of an embassy official, on the embassy grounds. I said that I hadn't, and then this person showed it to me.

(Back in the USA, this may have been a TGIF. Since the weekends are different here, some of us refer to this as TAIT: Thank Allah It's Thursday.)

The invitation was addressed to a long list of recipients, including "Nouakchott PC Americans." That being the case, it seemed clear that we PCVs in Nouakchott were invited. There were only three of us who went, along with an RPCV who served in Mauritania, and who is now a United Nations Volunteer based in Kaédi.

During the event, the host came up to me and asked, "How did you find out about this party?" I told him about the e-mail invitation that I had seen. His response: "You are in my home and I hope that you will enjoy yourself. All the same, you were not invited."

I found out later that when the three other Volunteers arrived together, they got the same message at the embassy entrance. Had I been told this before I even entered the embassy grounds, I would have said thank you and walked away. But since I was in the man's house, I just listened, nodded, thanked him, and… went to get another glass of wine!

I once heard said that the definition of a good diplomat is somebody who can tell you to go to hell in such a pleasant way that he can make you look forward to taking the trip. Our diplomat host was only able to accomplish the first half of that!

By all means, people are free to create their own guest lists, to invite or not invite whoever they want into their own homes. We just thought that, considering there is a grand total not exceeding one hundred Americans in Nouakchott, that this "diplomat" was taking an unnecessarily hostile tone to us. I call it social apartheid, embassy-style.

My French lessons can take a variety of formats: sometimes sitting, studying, and talking; but they can also take the form of being out and around town with my teacher, Ali, who is very accommodating to being able to help us out in the various markets.

There is a huge market of secondhand goods, mostly furniture, and Ali once told us that if we wanted to go there, to let him know because he could help us to get the best prices. During one of our lessons, then, I went with Ali and Carl, another PCV, to that market. I was looking for a dining room table, chairs, and a dresser.

This type of furniture is not very common here, so we didn't have much luck. What we did see was not very attractive. Carl said that it was obvious to him that he was going to have to "embrace the ugliness" of whatever furniture he bought. That, of course, became a running joke the rest of the afternoon, as we gauged which ugliness we were or were not willing to embrace.

I found a metal frame for a desk; there was no top. It had a lot of ugliness, and was fairly cheap at 2,000 ouguiya, a little more than $6.50. I thought I would be able to use it as the base for a dining room table; all I needed was a wooden top. I didn't buy the frame right away because I thought it best to look into the cost of having a top made for it.

That week, I stopped at a carpenter's shop between my house and the PC bureau. When I gave the carpenter the measurements, two meters by 88 centimeters, he gave me a price of 8,000 ouguiya for the table top. All told, then, the dining room table would be a total of 10,000 ouguiya, and, I thought, an interesting combination of ugly bottom and nice new top.

I went back to the market a few days later to see about buying the metal frame and negotiating a way for the seller to drill some holes into the top so I could fasten the new wood top from underneath. This time, though, there was a different person in charge of the shop and the price was now 10,000 for the ugly metal frame, though he saw my reaction and quickly re-adjusted the price to 8,000.

For 2,000, I was willing to embrace the ugliness, but not for 8,000; that would make the cost of the table 16,000 ouguiya ($53), and if I were paying that much, I wanted it to look nicer. So I returned to the carpenter who had the measurements for the top, and I asked him how much it would cost to put legs on it - make the whole table. He gave me a price of 13,000 ouguiya complete ($43), which is much better, considering that the table will be all new, with no ugliness to embrace.

I can pick up the table this week.

There were two new possibilities for volunteering outside of the PC this week:

Thursday was the United Nations' International Volunteer Day. I was part of the PC contingent that went to help. There were two initiatives that we were helping with in two different parts of Nouakchott: cleaning up garbage and planting trees.

In typical Mauritanian fashion, we had to show up at 8:00 in the morning and the word didn't begin until 11:30. The first thing we had to do was wait around with nothing to do. That took about an hour and a half. That was followed by an hour of speeches, skits, and songs, all in Hassaniya.

When we finally got to the neighborhood where the work had to be done, we found out that all of it was to be accomplished by the residents of the neighborhood. This, of course, is a good idea, since it gives them ownership of the projects. At the same time, it left us with nothing to do but watch!

The next day was the Winterfest of the American International School in Nouakchott. They ask for PCVs, among others, to volunteer with things that need to be done to keep the fundraiser going smoothly. When I got there, the woman in charge of volunteers said, "We have you in the food concession."

I said that that would be fine, as long as I didn't have to handle any meat products. She said, "You mean like flipping hamburgers? That's what we wanted you to do.

We made a quick change of personnel and I worked as a cashier, taking in money in exchange for the tickets that people used to buy things and play games.

As promised last week, following are the reviews of my latest reading. The second book is the one I mentioned last week - the one that helped to give me a fresh perspective on my diet. The first and third were written by RPCVs.

Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Borders by Jason Carter
Jason Carter served in the Peace Corps in South Africa around the turn of the century, so he was witness to many of the post-apartheid transitions that existed there. He paints a picture of a varied nation in which the First and Third Worlds live side-by-side. The title refers to the electrical lines that ran above his village, carrying electricity to other communities, but bypassing his. The forward to the book was written by the author's grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, who also accorded Jason the opportunity to meet President Nelson Mandela while he was in-country. Other than that, Carter was given no special privileges, and lived like the other Volunteers. (Wouldn't it be inspiring for one of the Bush girls to serve in this same way? That would be as unlikely as it would be inspirational!)

The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness by Douglas J. Lisle & Alan Goldhamer
It's a funny thing about gifts, in that the giver usually has an educated guess as to how the recipient will react, but can never quite be sure. Fortunately, my friend who sent me this book made a good guess. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it to anyone who would like to have an insight into her or his eating habits. Central to the book is the explanation that we human beings create our lives around three core functions: avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, and conserving energy. With that in mind they examine, in a very methodical way, how and why most unhealthy people have simply eaten their way into their debilitating ailments.

Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen
This is not just another Peace Corps book, but the Peace Corps book! Moritz Thomsen was a PCV in Ecuador in the late Sixties. His experience there led him to extend his service for two years. He then lived the rest of his life there, dying in 1991.
If I could write with half his power, I would be thrilled! He is at once observant, realistic, humorous, descriptive, and down-to-earth. There is hardly a paragraph that is not worthy of taking out, all by itself, and framing! I just did a web search to see if he had written anything else, and discovered three more books that came out of him before his end. If you have any writing tendencies yourself, you will get an excellent return on your investment of time spent reading Moritz Thomsen.

It will probably be January before I get to finish and review another book. My latest reading is in French - and more than 300 pages.